When was the last time a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman stopped by your house? These guys used to be a fixture during the summer months when the encyclopedia companies could hire cheap student labor for the job. I know, because I was one of them… for about a week and a half! We didn’t sell encyclopedias; we gave them away. We placed them in lucky homes to generate interest in a neighborhood in advance of the real salesmen coming through. There were two catches: you had to be willing to pay more than the encyclopedias were worth for umpteen years of “yearbooks” – yearly supplements to keep your set up to date, and there were no salesmen coming through later. We were it.
I took the job because we had a set of those encyclopedias in our home and they had served me well in jr. high school. By high school teachers were demanding that we use more “original sources.” That meant long hours in the library doing research and taking copious notes in longhand. I quit after a week and a half because it seemed the whole thing was a scam, preying on young couples with children. We were ordered never to miss a home with a tricycle in the driveway.
You can still buy the print version of that encyclopedia, but most of the effort from that company now is put into on-line versions because that’s where everyone puts their efforts these days and that’s where the information can be updated as quickly as our modern world demands. If you took all of the information available in digital form and put it on CDs at maximum compression, it would form a stack that went to the moon and half way back again. Try to wrap your head around that. “To the moon, Alice!” as Ralph Kramden would say. And half way back again.
Now and then when reading through some of the news stories, columns, blogs, magazines, and other sources of information I try to follow online, I run across something that just doesn’t ring true. Flags go up in my head and I make a note to look further into whatever it was. Every day, on the other hand, I find myself reading statistics, claims, opinions, etc. that contradict each other. “This is the worst thing since the depression.” “This is the best thing since sliced bread!” “This will cost 2 million jobs over 5 years.” “This will mean 500,000 people will lose their jobs.”
And the only reason to raise a red flag is that there is no agreement. But then, there is almost never agreement, so that’s not unusual at all. But who’s right? And how are you supposed to know?
The dawn of the Information Age has given way to the Age of the Infoglut in which there is so much information available the average person can’t begin to keep up with it. There are so many sources of information that there is no way to look at them all. So, which ones do you look at? And which ones do you trust?
No matter how you approach those questions it becomes clear very quickly that to get information you think you can trust about the things you want to know, you are going to have to spend more time than you wanted to and a good deal more effort than you wished you had to. It’s no longer enough to read the local ever-dwindling-in-size newspaper and be done with it. It’s almost as bad as being stuck in the stacks at the library skimming one book after another. Almost.
Given this glut of information and sources, it’s no wonder that many people simply give up and stick with what they want to hear or what they are comfortable with. And while that’s easy, it makes progress nearly impossible. Unless people change over time, progress can never be made. If we were to freeze what everyone believes at some moment in time we would be destined to have the same debates forever. No one would change their minds; no one would admit that given new information they had reconsidered their position. No one would understand that the world has moved on and left them behind with ideas useful only in an era now deceased. Civilization would simply traverse a mini-Mobius strip forever. It sometimes appears that we are nearly there.
Now and then a spark of hope is ignited in the fog, though, and deserves to be pointed out as an example. In 1996 Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. This piece of legislation defined marriage as being legal on a federal level between a man and a woman only. Recently, President Clinton called for its repeal.
In his Washington Post opinion piece Clinton writes,
When I signed the bill, I included a statement with the admonition that “enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination.” Reading those words today, I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned.
Bill Clinton no longer has political motivation for making this statement. He has simply changed his mind, based on a changing world. The opinion piece outlines his reasons.
George Carlin used to say (along with many others) that you not only have to teach your children to read, you have to teach them to question what they read. Only by questioning, only by constantly re-educating yourself based on the answers you find, can you progress. And only if individuals progress can civilization move forward.
The very core of western education has always been this very thing: read, learn, question, evolve.
An argument could be made that for far too many people this process has been subverted by special interests into: listen, believe, repeat, stagnate.
But reading takes time. Learning takes effort. Questioning takes skill. None of us have these things in abundance, and when faced with the Zettabytes (that’s 1021 bytes) of information available today, we recoil. It’s so much easier to let Sean Hannity or Ed Schultz tell us what to think and let it go at that.
This is cultural suicide. Call it post infoglut stress disorder if you like, but it is the path to cultural suicide, and there is no small blue pill that is going to cure us. We can’t go sit on a couch in some small office and talk about how we hate our fathers and come away productive members of society rather than the dead wood we have become. There is no magic device that if worn melts away the fat that has accumulated in our brains. It’s going to take work.
And willpower! Like kicking any bad habit, it is going to require that we want to change before we can. Change, of course, is scary; it’s uncomfortable. But it’s necessary.
We all have firmly held beliefs. We have to. They are the foundation of what we perceive ourselves to be. They are, in effect, us. And when asked to question those core beliefs we recoil because to question them is to question our very selves, our very identity. No one has the right to ask us to do that, do they? But we not only have the right to do that, we have the obligation to do that. We owe that to our families, our friends, and our countries, because we live with them, among them, within them.
When I was young I believed that a woman’s place was in the home. I made my fiancé promise, only half-jokingly, that she would darn my socks before I agreed to getting married. I was a stupid putz. I changed. And that meant putting aside everything I had been taught, everything I had observed in my parent’s home, my grandparent’s homes, and my neighbor’s homes and opening my eyes to the reality around me then. It turns out that my wife was much more successful as a professional by almost every measure than I ever was. The world changes a little bit every day. We had better keep up.
And if we really want to keep up, even in the Age of the Infoglut, it’s far easier than it was buried in the stacks of some musty library. Read, learn, question, evolve.
Read whatever you like, but don’t just read things you know you will agree with. Read things you think you will probably disagree with as well. But question everything, both agreeable and disagreeable. Constantly ask, “Why?” Constantly ask, “Is this logical?” Constantly ask, “Is this true?” Research if you need to.
If you only listen to the side of any argument with which you agree, you’ll never understand why the other side thinks the way they do. And what they say may not be nearly as important as why they say it.
Read “The Huffington Post,” but also read “The National Review.” Watch Sean Hannity if you must, but also watch Ed Schultz. Watch Rachael Maddow, but check out Bill O’Reilly now and then.
Even when you are watching a video clip presented by one side of an argument, ask yourself, “Has this been edited for content?” “Did they just leave out the part that changes the whole meaning?” If you have to, go to the source. It’s out there online somewhere.
Realize that there is a difference between sources that offer opinions and sources that offer researched “fact.” You can get well researched, factual information on health care in America from a recent “Time Magazine” article. Don’t expect that from “Madam Esmeralda’s Snake Oil Blog.”
Find the date on which what you’re reading was written. It’s easy to get well into a piece before you realize it was written ten years ago. Stuff online doesn’t just go away.
Research your sources! Read “The Onion” or “The Borowitz Report” for a good laugh, not to learn about the real world. And look at the money behind the sources as well. Who owns, sponsors, or otherwise contributes to a source can often tell you a good deal about where their true interests lie. Sometimes this can be hard to do. Many so-called “bi-partisan” or “neutral” organizations have very partisan sponsors or owners buried beneath layers of obfuscation. A couple of minutes on the “About” page for the site and a Google search or two should be all that’s needed.
Understand that not everyone is just a “liberal” or just a “conservative.” People are complex and their thinking is sometimes more so. A source can be liberal leaning on one topic and quite conservative on another.
Be aware that even an extremist nut job can occasionally say something rational and reasonable. Don’t expect that, but don’t be too surprised at it either.
And don’t forget that there’s still a place for the printed page. For an in-depth look at any topic, nothing beats a well-written book. Whether you turn pages or swipe a screen, check out the new releases, or to catch up on a subject you’ve neglected, try something a little older.
If this all seems overwhelming, don’t do all of it at once. But try some of it. Once you begin to see the misinformation being foisted on you by special interests, the logical bullshit you are surrounded by, the flat-out lies being told under the guise of “news,” you may want to do more.
It’s work, but it’s worth it. It’s frustrating, but it’s necessary. If you don’t keep expanding your horizon, you might as well be getting all your information from that 1967 set of Grolier’s Encyclopedia, frozen in time, reflecting a world long since vanished.
Your Humble Servant,
The Willowbrook Curmudgeon